Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

San Diego Fair Photo Exhibit 2019 - Part 4

Note: This is the fourth and final part of a series of blog posts describing my experience submitting images to the 2019 San Diego County Fair phtoography exhibit. You can read Part III here.

Yesterday was the artists reception where all the photographers who made it to Tier 2 were invited to the exhibit and the awards were publically announced. But before I get into my results, I wanted to make a a few comments about the competition and judging process.

The competition is incredibly fierce

Walking through the exhibit the first thing I noticed was the competition was much fiercer than before. The quality and consistency of the photography was definitely a step above what I saw in the past two years. In many categories there were easily a dozen images that could have reasonably taken first place. Frequently, I found the image that I personally thought the best did not even place.

When I initially looked at the accept / reject numbers I thought it wouldn’t be so difficult to make it in the exhibit as approximately 1 in 4 images advance to Tier 2. But then I realized that the three other images you need to beat out are not just any random photos, they are the top photos made by the 900 photographers who participate. These photographers are only submitting work that they think is their very best and they can select any image they made over the course of their career (the only requirement is that the photo cannot have been shown previously at the fair).

I try to follow the work of local professional photographers and I noticed that even some that regularly show their work in local art fairs had a large percentage of their images rejected and fail to make Tier 2.

Getting an image in the fair and shown on the walls is an achievement, regardless of whether you place or not.

Judging is inherently variable

You shouldn’t think that the judging process is an exact science – it is not by any means. There is a lot of variability in the process and I think this is inherently unavoidable for several reasons.

First, art is subjective and every judge will have their own viewpoint on what makes a good photo. Further complicating the judging is that sometimes completely different styles of photography are present in the same category. For example, you could have landscapes going head to head against a portrait shot in categories such as the annual fair theme. Even within a group such as landscapes, how does one compare a mountain scene to a seascape? It is a bit akin to deciding which flavor of ice cream is the best.

Second, the judges also have to make an incredible number of decisions under intense time pressure. Consider that

  • There were 4367 submitted images that got winnowed down to 1478 advancing to Tier 2.
  • The 1478 Tier 2 images get reduced to 136 that place in each of 34 categories (awards given from 1st to 4th place).
  • The 136 that place get further narrowed down to the 34 category winners.
  • From the 34 category winners, only 1 gets selected as best of show.

The reviewing for Tier 1 and Tier 2 each takes place in single day. With this many decisions, it’s unrealistic to expect completely consistent results. In extreme cases, there are photographers who have had images rejected one year only to resubmit them the next and win an award.

Dealing with disappointment

Everybody who ever participates in a competition will face disappointment and will lose to others. Even the photographer who won best in show had multiple images rejected at Tier 2. This is something that we all experience and although you get used to rejection, it still stings a bit especially if it’s your favorite image that got eliminated.

I don’t have any magic bullets for getting over one’s disappointment. But you should learn what you can. Don’t dismiss the judges as being clueless and really give it a second thought whether your work was really up to par for that category.

Also realize that the judges are trying to put together a good show as a whole. Because of their experience in photography and the nature of the exhibit, they evaluate images very differently then a potential client looking to buy a print to decorate their living room, a couple ordering prints from their wedding, or an art collector looking for a limited edition print. The judges also have no context to evaluate the images. The judging is done anonymously and at most they see a one sentence caption that you submit with the image.

My results

I’m very happy with the results this year and I did better than I expected. My photo of Balboa Park, Moonlit Triumph, was awarded first place in the City & Architecture category. I also placed in the At the Fair and Night photography categories with my works At the Races and Juniper & Monolith. Finally I received an honorable mention for my photograph of the poppy bloom at Lake Elsinore for the Fair Theme (Wizard of Oz) category.

First place in City & Architecture Second place in At the Fair Third place in Night Photography Honorable mention in the fair annual theme